DC legislation to allow unlicensed devices threatens wireless audio, video industry

During the past 30 years the broadcast sports, news, and entertainment industries have come to rely on wireless audio and video technologies to tell more compelling stories and keep the public informed of emergency situations. Without wireless ENG the world would never have seen live aerial images of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina or on-the-street reports from lower Manhattan on Sept. 11.

But a flurry of recent bills proposed in both the Congress and the Senate are looking to allow unlicensed wireless devices to be used in “White Spaces” threaten the future of not only wireless ENG but any other service that relies on wireless transmission. In the sports industry, for example, live video from in-car cameras during a NASCAR race, shots from a blimp flying over a stadium, or even a simple interview with a fan in the stands would become a thing of the past if any of the bills are passed.

And that’s only the beginning. Professionals who need reliable wireless communication, from a football quarterback, to a security guard, or a football referee, will need to find other means to communicate.

“It would be like the wild, wild west,” says Glenn Adamo, VP of media operations for the National Football League of the prospect of unlicensed devices being added to the mix. “We would prefer frequencies be coordinated and we have coordinators in each city who maximize the number of users on the spectrum even though there isn’t enough to go around. The last thing any league would want is for unlicensed devices to be allowed.”

There are currently three pieces of legislation on the books. In February 2006 Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) introduced the American Broadband for Communities Act (S. 2332) and Senator George Allen (R-VA) offered up the Wireless Innovation Act of 2006 (S. 2327). Both bills require the FCC to issue an order within 180 days of enactment to allow unlicensed devices to operate in unused broadcast channels. And just this week Congress got into the act as Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced legislation that was identical to the Stevens bill.

Stevens says that broadcasters are allocated hundreds of MHz of spectrum to provide television service across the country but that in any one market some of the spectrum goes unused.

“Some studies have indicated that there is more than 150 MHz of spectrum in Anchorage, Alaska, and Honolulu, Hawaii, that could be used by unlicensed devices for wireless services,” he says. “Even in large cities like Boston and Chicago it is estimated that nearly 50 MHz of spectrum goes unused.”

The goal of the legislation, says Stevens, is to make it easier for companies to offer broadband services to consumers. “Allowing unlicensed operations in the broadcast band could play a significant role in bringing wireless broadband and home networking to more of our citizens by lowering costs, particularly in Alaska where connectivity is so important due to our remoteness,” he says.

While the vision sounds great on paper the concensus among spectrum experts, broadcasters, and manufacturers is that it just won’t work. “In the past things that didn’t play well together in the spectrum were kept apart,” says Jeff Krull, Sennheiser VP of product development. “And that worked well. But the new proposals open up some very real interference problems for devices that operate in those frequencies.”

Stevens’ bill does acknowledge potential problems and it calls for the FCC to craft technical requirements for unlicensed devices in the broadcast band that would protect broadcast stations. In addition, the legislation urges the FCC to further establish an interference complaint resolution process for broadcasters. “I believe that the requirements in the bill will give the broadcasters additional protection while allowing more efficient use of the valuable broadcast spectrum, which is an invaluable public resource,” said Stevens.

A fundamental flaw in that approach, says Krull, is that devices operating on different power levels might think the same piece of spectrum is free when it really isn’t. “You’ll see Blackberry’s interfering with microphones and Blue-Tooth devices crashing into WiFi and cordless phones,” says Krull.

“The notion that smart technology can solve everything when there has yet to be a smart technology solution that has proven effective is absurd,” says Jeanne Walsh Stockman, who represents Shure Bros. at the Washington, DC firm Bingham McCutchen, LLP. “Shure advocates that Congress not rush to judgment and instead let the engineers do their job and work out a technical solution. There’s too much at risk.”

Sen. Stevens is expected to roll his white spaces bill into a larger piece of telecommunications legislation that will be introduced following the Easter break. The larger bill is expected to address issues like Internet neutrality and universal service, among other items.

With legislators increasingly intent on broadening wireless access members of the broadcast community believe the industry needs to make its concerns clear. “Everyone in the broadcast industry needs to contact their Senators and Congressmen to urge them to never allow for unlicensed devices to be allowed in TV white space spectrum,” says Dave Donovan, president of Maximum Service Television.

Donovan says allowing unlicensed devices into white spaces will also cause interference with over-the-air television reception. “You could be in an apartment and the person upstairs could use a wireless device and prevent you from receiving a TV signal,” he explains.

Next week MSTV has scheduled meetings with the House and Senate staff to make its concerns clear. They’ll take place on April 10, 11, 12, 13, and 17. Anyone interested in attending should contact Susan Baurenfeind with MSTV via email at sbaurenfeind@mstv.com for more details.

Ardell Hill, Media General Broadcast Group SVP of Broadcast Operations, the wireless needs for broadcasters and networks at events, whether political conventions, sports or news in general, are simply too important to both the broadcaster and the viewer. “Wireless devices are not just a luxury,” he says. “Today they’re essential to telling the story.”

The new legislation compounds an already difficult ENG wireless situation for broadcasters. Broadcasters today are losing the majority of the spectrum they rely on for ENG use because Sprint Nextel is giving up some of its spectrum on the 800 MHz frequency band and moving to the 2 GHz band currently used by broadcasters. Because the 2GHz band has less bandwidth than the 800 MHz band Sprint Nextel is spending approximately $500 million on digital microwave gear that will help fit more stations into the bandwidth.

“We’re already being forced to compress spectrum that is already crowded,” says Hill. “And while technology does allow us to create the same number of channels we didn’t have enough channels to begin with.”

Ken Aaagaard, CBS Sports SVP, operations and production services, says who has rights to bandwidth with be an ongoing question for a long time, particularly as the U.S. becomes more of a wireless society. “But no one group can solve the problem-not the government, the FCC, the broadcasters, or the equipment manufacturers. Serious talks are going to have to take place because right now there are two trains on a collision course.”

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